Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I spent the first part of Labor Day playing block games with Dave Schueler. I have a longtime love of board games. Avalon Hill's U-Boat was my first board wargame and I played lots of Avalon Hill, Conflict Games, and SPI games from about age 10 through the time I started playing miniatures wargames. I had several friends from grade school on up who played these games. My friend Richard introduced me to PanzerBlitz, my friend Glen and I played Tactics II until we wore the game out, my friend Chet and I played every SPI game we could get our hands on.

In high school, I played a lot with my friends Ron Towler and Dave Trinidad. One of the games Ron was big on was Quebec 1759 from Columbia Games. Unlike the hex-and-counter games that I routinely played, Quebec used wooden blocks with unit symbols printed on them. Unit strength was indicated by pips that ran on two, three, or all four edges of the block's face. As the unit took hits, the block would be rotated to indicate the strength on the top edge. The blocks were maneuvered on the board with the symbols and strengths facing the owning player so that there was some simulation of the fog of war. Only when battles were fought were the units and their strengths revealed to the opposing player. It was a great concept and we would play back-to-back games for an afternoon.

Quebec 1759 was a pretty simple game system. As Columbia Games went on, they developed more nuanced game mechanics that retained simplicity and speed of play, but added features to the system that made game play more interesting and multi-faceted.

The last game Dave and I played yesterday was Columbia's latest long-awaited release, Athens & Sparta, which portrays the Peloponnesian War. It seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but with each turn we got a better feel for it. It's definitely a game that will improve with more play. The Spartans have a very strong central position with formidable land power. The Athenians have a far-flung empire with very strong naval forces. Game turns represent olympiads and each olympiad consists of twelve player turns (six for each in an I-go-U-go sequence).

I played Athens and adopted a Periclean strategy of an active defense. It paid off in a few occasions. Naupactus was the first big fight. Dave took it early on, but I managed to take it back and hold it. The second big fight was Chalcis where Dave made a major effort to take the city. The superior Athenian naval forces kept the city open to reinforcements and I was able to beat two strong attempts to storm it and persevere through plague and siege attrition losses. After the second attempt, my Macedonian allies came down to wipe out the remnants of the Spartan force after it had expended itself trying to take the city.

We didn't finish the game because of time constraints (I had a dinner party to put on that night), but we got through two-thirds of it. My feeling (and Dave's, too) was that Sparta had shot its bolt and unless I did something really stupid, like invading Syracuse, I would win. I had the luck of getting Macedon and Crete as allies. However, there was still Thessaly and Thrace in play and Sparta gaining them as allies could be a problem, so it was not a foregone conclusion.

We started the day playing a newer member of the block game family, Command & Colors Ancients by GMT Games. This series was released in 2006 and made a big splash among gamers. I bought the first game and the first expansion a while ago, but never had the chance to play them. Most of my gaming time is spent with miniatures and there are few board game players near enough to me that I can connect with.

We played two scenarios from the original game: Ilipa and Castulo. Both scenarios were set in Spain during the 2nd Punic War. I played Carthage in both scenarios (and lost twice). I am very happy with the game system. The rules are straightforward with enough detail to add color to the games. Luck plays a pretty significant part in the game. Card draws determine what actions you can take and the combat dice can roll hot or cold. However, it cuts both ways and Dave and I each had a share of hot dice and cold dice. Even so, good play depends on what you do with what you're given; careful, judicious play is generally rewarded. Commands & Colors Ancients is definitely a system I want to play more of.

The rest of Labor Day went well. I had my mother, sister, and her two sons over for dinner. I made a Mediterranean dish with shrimp and scallops in a spicy scampi sauce over fusili pasta. I made this before a few times and it's a favorite. I cook well, but like most of my endeavors, I throw a lot of money at it, so a home-cooked meal for five tends to cost me as much as I would pay if I took everybody out for dinner and picked up the tab. The meal was topped off by a cottage cheese and nutmeg pie my sister brought. Surprisingly, it was pretty good. It's actually kind of custardy with the texture of cottage cheese. By day's end I was exhausted. Fortunately, I have today off to recover. Also, I've got all this leftover food in my fridge...

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